Lakers continue to build chemistry, move into the playoff picture with win over Bulls

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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time in the making, and there’s plenty more work to be done over the regular season’s final 18 games. But for the first time all year, the Lakers can look at the standings and see themselves as an official part of the playoff picture after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Bulls at Staples Center.

The Lakers are now 33-31 on the season, and sit in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

In Friday night’s win over the Raptors, the Lakers needed several shots that were both miraculous and heroic from Kobe Bryant down the stretch to come back and get the overtime victory. They didn’t need much from him offensively in this one, however, thanks to a balanced attack and a strong third quarter from Steve Nash, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the period.

Bryant didn’t even reach double figures in scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter, which pushed the Lakers lead to 15. He finished with a team-high 19 points, to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while five of his teammates finished in double digits.

The Bulls are not known for their offense, and struggled to score in this one. Chicago shot a dismal 37.1 percent from the field, and went just 4-16 from three-point distance. But the defensive effort from the Lakers was stronger than usual, led by an increasingly more active Dwight Howard, whose 21 rebounds helped L.A. dominate the Bulls on the glass for most of the contest.

Chicago was able to cut a lead that once reached 18 points down to eight with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Lakers responded by scoring the next five points, while holding the Bulls scoreless for the next three and a half minutes.

More important than this single game victory and the temporary playoff position that it earned the Lakers is the improved chemistry the team is showing on the court. The communication was constant in this one defensively, with players giving their all on loose ball and rebound opportunities, while the body language overall was genuinely positive. The change from the way these guys interacted with each other in the opening months of the season is both noticeable and substantial.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way — Bryant was furious with Metta World Peace at the end of the first half, after he committed an offensive foul while Bryant was dribbling down the clock to get off a final shot. He yelled at Metta as the two walked back down the floor, but all was forgiven later when Bryant was seen with his arm around his teammate on the bench early in the fourth.

The extent of how much Howard can improve from a health standpoint as the Lakers close out the regular season, along with the amount of chemistry the team can continue to build during that time will largely determine its postseason fate.

Winning can cure a lot of issues, and certainly helps the team-building a lot more than it hurts. At least after Sunday’s victory, L.A. can now, if only briefly, officially see itself as part of the playoff picture.

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Gordon Hayward is shooting standing threes in an empty gym. That’s something, I guess.

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Having lost three games in a row at home, doubt seems to have crept into the minds of some Celtics fans. They’re the top seed in the East (and likely finish the season in that slot, again), but just how good are they really? Do they have enough to knock off the Cavaliers and LeBron James when he goes into playoff mode?

In the midst of that self-doubt, the wife of Gordon Hayward, Robyn, posted this.

Still can’t beat me… 🤷🏻‍♀️

A post shared by Robyn Hayward (@robynmhayward) on

For Boston fans still holding out hope Hayward returns this season, this is another sign. No brace, no chair, he’s draining threes. It’s a step forward.

This video also borders on meaningless — he’s not jumping, not moving, not showing us anything about his recovery we didn’t already know. Good to see him up and making progress, but that he can hit stand-still threes in an empty gym is about as shocking as finding out the next Transformers movie is going to suck.

Officially, Hayward is still out for the season. He’s putting in the work, and maybe he returns before the playoffs, but the Celtics are not going to rush him back for this season. Nor should they. The Celtics are on a multi-year plan to be the next dominant team in the East, no reason to push him and risk anything now.

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo “devastated” by Jason Kidd firing

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The Bucks have been a team of unfulfilled potential for a few seasons now, two steps up and one step back. Last season they were 42-40 and bounced in the first round of the playoffs, this season they are 23-22 and the eighth seed in the East, with the point differential of a team that should be 20-25 and on its way to a 36-win season.

That cost Jason Kidd his job.

That has not sat well with the team’s superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, reports Chris Haynes of ESPN.

You can’t blame Antetokounmpo, Kidd has been his coach the past three-and-a-half seasons and guided the Greek Freak’s rise to superstardom. Kidd also was the one who put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands and made him both the defacto point guard on the team and one of the league’s most dangerous players. Kidd did some very good things with these Bucks, and Antetokounmpo is understandably loyal to the man.

However, Antetokounmpo is under contract at a near-max salary until the summer of 2021, so he has no real leverage here.

Elite coaches will be lined up for a chance to coach Antetokounmpo and a very talented Bucks roster, but whoever gets the job next summer has to connect with the superstar first. Kidd had done that.